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'Bulk' of criminal records ordered released to media

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Prior Restraints         Sep 20, 1999    

‘Bulk’ of criminal records ordered released to media

  • A federal district court reversed its May order to permanently seal a criminal file, which it had made without giving the media the opportunity to oppose.

Saying that the media has a qualified but not absolute right of access to court records, a southern California federal district court ruled in mid-August that news organizations have the right to examine “the bulk” of a man’s criminal records. The court delayed the effect of its ruling until early September to give the man the right to appeal the decision.

The court announced its decision in a nine-page order, which referred to a contemporaneously filed, sealed, “comprehensive” 22-page order that the court wrote “to permit the Ninth Circuit to better understand [the court’s] findings” if a party appeals the decision.

The court made its decision after hearing oral arguments from ABC and The Copley Press. After ABC and Copley made their arguments in court, the court heard arguments from the criminal defendant and the U.S. government outside the presence of the media par ties.

The court’s decision reversed its May order that had “permanently sealed” the criminal file. The court had made that initial ruling — which the court also filed under seal — without giving the media the opportunity to oppose its limitations on access to the file.

The court acknowledged in making its latest ruling that ABC and Copley had an “inherent difficulty in arguing for disclosure [of all of the criminal file], since the relevant documents at issue, as well as the Court’s prior sealing order, were placed unde r seal.” The court also admitted that it had compounded ABC and Copley’s “disadvantage” by not allowing them to hear the defendant’s and the government’s arguments.

The court, however, stated that it needed to restrict ABC and Copley’s access to the prior order, the criminal file, and the oral arguments of the parties who favored keeping the record sealed because it needed to avoid inappropriately revealing “the cont ents of the very information at issue.”

(United States v. Ellis; Media Counsel: Jeffrey D. Frost, Los Angeles, and Alonzo B. Wickers IV, Los Angeles)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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